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"challenged his ingenuity" [BLAC]

Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest creation, yet as I argued in my anthology, A Study in Terror, there is so much more to the literary work of the man.  Probably Doyle's most famous non- Sherlockian creation was the character of Professor Challenger, the pompous, irritable blowhard with a tender side who traveled to discover a prehistoric lost world, survived an attic of interstellar poisonous gas, and made the Earth scream. While there has been the occasional novel or story which included the Challenger character over the last century, no grand collection of new tales, such as has consistently been occurring with Sherlock Holmes, has ever been released...until now.

Enter Charles Prepolec and J.R.Campbell, the gentlemen behind the new anthology Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places.  This is a wonderful collection of tales which combines elements of H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, and Jules Verne as well as the creations of Doyle.  In my own review of the anthology, I predicted that this book would be the greatest golden age science fiction collection of the year.

I had the honor of interviewing both Charles Prepolec (CP) and J.R. Campbell (JC) about their astounding anthology, future projects, and of course their favorite Sherlock Holmes story.

[Editor's note: we last spoke with Charles Prepolec on Episode 57.]

I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: You've edited and assembled a number of Sherlock Holmes anthologies, what inspired you to create a collection of new Professor Challenger stories?

Charles Prepolec: Well, it isn’t all just about Sherlock Holmes for me, as I have a near equally strong appreciation for Arthur Conan Doyle’s other writings. He was a dab hand in any number of genres, with a particular aptitude for ghostly or weird tales. Having produced three volumes in our Gaslight Sherlock Holmes series, in which we’ve pitted the master of the rational against the irrational, it seemed a natural progression to develop a project where we could dive wholeheartedly into fantasy, science fiction, and horror, yet still play in Arthur Conan Doyle’s sandbox. Professor Challenger gave us the perfect means to do so.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Challenger has made an appearance in one of our anthologies. He turned up in our first Gaslight anthology — Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes — courtesy of Martin Powell’s contribution "Sherlock Holmes in the Lost World," so he’s been with us from the start. That being said, I think the real catalyst that tipped us over into moving ahead with a Professor Challenger anthology came up in 2011 during an online interactive author promotion at Bitten By Books for Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes. Someone posted a question asking if we’d consider doing something with Challenger. We hadn’t, but the idea light bulb lit up with a palpable ‘ping’ at that moment, particularly when I realized The Lost World, which introduced the character, would be celebrating a centenary in 2012. Plus, you know, everyone loves dinosaurs! We pitched a Challenger anthology to our publisher, Brian Hades, at EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, and the rest, as they say, is history.

J.R. Campbell: A couple of reasons really, the first being that the Professor is just so damn fun. As a science fiction fan I’ve grown up with kindly old, slightly eccentric scientists (often with a hot daughter who will grab the hero’s attention), mad scientists threatening everything, insanely competent scientists whose only apparent ambition is to supply exposition and, if necessary, to provide the protagonist with the necessary heroic angst by sacrificing themselves for the sake of all mankind. Professor Challenger fits none of these standard scientist tropes, he is nothing if not extraordinary.

Secondly, it’s a chance to right a wrong. The Professor hasn’t racked the film and television credits Sherlock has but he has quite a number. And when he appears on screen it’s invariably a watered-down version of Challenger’s remarkable personality. With all due respect to the dinosaurs, our feeling has always been that it’s Challenger who makes the Challenger stories extraordinary. If we have managed to recapture the essence of The Professor then this book will be a success.

Charles Prepolec (L) and J.R. Campbell (R) signing copies of their book

IHOSE:   Without giving too much away, tell us about some of the stories in Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places.  Which ones are the most traditional?  Which ones are the most fantastical?

CP: I’m extremely proud of this book. We’ve assembled an amazing roster of writers, some of whom we’ve worked with previously on our Sherlock Holmes books, as well as some that are new to our "family," and each has risen to the "Challenger Challenge" and delivered truly top-notch short fiction. There’s a hell of a variety in terms of style and tone in this volume, which pleasantly echoes the variety to be found in Doyle’s five Professor Challenger stories, although I’m happy to say that unlike ACD, none of our authors used the opportunity to pen a spiritualist tract. Instead we have some science fiction, some fantasy, a bit of horror, a thread of mystery and even some straight up humour, all of which makes for some great adventure tales.

As for "most traditional" I’d have to say that in my mind John Takis comes closest with "The Crystal Minders," in so much that it pits Challenger against a loathsome fellow scientist along the lines of ACD’s "The Disintegration Machine." At the other end of the spectrum, I suppose Larry Connolly’s delightful Wellsian romp “King of the Moon” probably deserves the tag "most fantastical" since Challenger literally goes to the moon, but I’d opt for “Professor Challenger and the Crimson Wonder” by Guy Adams and James Goss largely due to the structure, since the story is conveyed as a series of letters between Challenger and his wife, although the screwball storyline that often feels like an over-the-top episode of The Avengers adds to the effect.

Between those extremes we’ve also got stories that riff on Lovecraftian themes (Joshua M. Reynolds “Time’s Black Gulf" and Simon K. Unsworth’s “The Fool’s Sea,” the latter with a dash of William Hope Hodgson and John Wyndham), folklore and crypto-zoology (Wendy Wagner’s “Hind and Horn,” Steve Volk’s “The Shug Monkey” and Mark Morris's “The Eye of the Devil,” with a bit of Nigel Kneale thrown in for good measure) as well as rollicking, broad, Indiana Jones style adventure (Andrew J. Wilson’s “Out of the Depths”) so variety is the name of the game. Overall, if classic science fiction and fantasy along the lines of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs appeals to you, or if you’re big on X-Files, Quatermass and Doctor Who, we’ve got you covered in this book.

JC: I suppose it goes without saying that we love each of these stories, that’s why we picked them! Still, if forced to pick from among the beloved, I’d pick Mark Morris’s "The Eye of the Devil" as the most traditional. The setup is classic Challenger and I think Mark hits all the right notes in terms of tone and narrative voice.

The most fantastical? Again, there are a lot of stories to choose from here but I’d settle on "Professor Challenger and the Crimson Wonder" by Guy Adams and James Goss. It’s one of the stories where the sum is greater than its parts but it’s a wild ride packed with weird science, conspiracies and excellent portrayals of Professor and Mrs. Challenger.

IHOSE:  You also have a series of Gaslight Sherlock Holmes books which have the Great Detective dealing with elements of horror and the supernatural.  Why did you create a series of Sherlock Holmes books where spooks can apply?

JC: For the best reason there is to create any book: It’s what we wanted to read and we couldn’t find a book on the shelf that scratched that particular itch we both felt. So we made one. In Gaslight Grimoire we pitted Holmes against the fantasy genre, in Gaslight Grotesque we were going for horror genre stories and in Gaslight Arcanum we were looking for ‘weird fiction’ tales. What ties them together is that, whatever the situation, it is always Sherlock Holmes.

CP: Honestly? It’s a ridiculously simple thing. I enjoy Sherlock Holmes and I enjoy horror fiction. The notion of the two combined appeals to me on a basic level and I’m vain enough to think that if I enjoy reading that combination, so will other readers. Given that we began our Gaslight Sherlock Holmes series in a decade where Harry Potter was all the rage (and really, Harry Potter is simply young Sherlock Holmes with magic added) it seemed a viable combo. Besides, that whole "No ghosts need apply" thing was really just a blind on Watson’s part to cover what Holmes was really up to in some of those referenced tales. Giant rats, a worm unknown to science, monkey glands, etc. C’mon, you can’t seriously buy that "No ghosts need apply" business?

IHOSE:  Challenger has been called Doyle's Science Fiction Detective, yet he really is not much of a detective. Do you see some comparisons between Challenger and Holmes?  

CP: Yes and no. Both had an insatiable curiosity for uncovering the truth and both used science to further their respective ends. I suppose a case could be made for considering Challenger’s endeavours to be a form of detection, but quite frankly, the truths he chose to uncover are on a much larger scale. Holmes, as his brother Mycroft would likely suggest, spent his considerable skills uncovering crime, often on a tawdry and largely inconsequential level, but Challenger’s quest for ‘truth’ often had, in one case quite literally, Earth-shattering repercussions. While Holmes will always be the "Master Detective," I like to think of Challenger as a "Scientific Adventurer" archetype. Often imitated, but never equaled.

JC: I think it would be more accurate to call Holmes the Scientist of Crime. There are obvious and amusing differences between Doyle’s two geniuses, but they share a great deal more than just their creator. Both are very much ‘in the field’ investigators. Both are passionate about getting out there and seeing things for themselves. Both possess keen intellects, but where Holmes is sharp and always focused on the problem at hand, Challenger is a cannon, blasting away at whatever aspect of science he happens to be facing. Both have their Boswells, but where Holmes’ biographer tends to make Holmes more human, Malone takes a less forgiving, more honest view of his genius. Both are adventurers at least as much as they are intellectuals, and both share a love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life.

IHOSE: Our standard question for all Sherlockians: If you were stranded on a desert island with one Sherlock Holmes story, which would it be and why?

CP: Easy. The Sign of Four is my favourite Sherlock Holmes story. It has high adventure, exotic settings, grotesque characters, brilliant deductions, and in the end Watson gets the girl. There is no other Canonical tale that hits all those marks. It is the perfect "Victorian romance" in the classic sense.

JC: That’s a hard one. I’ve always considered "Silver Blaze" the best example of what makes a Sherlock Holmes story great, so I’d likely pick that one. Ideally, I’d pick that mythical Holmes story that Doyle forgot to tell anyone about or publish because it was so good that every other story would pale by comparison.

If I got to bring a Professor Challenger story, it would be The Poison Belt.

IHOSE:  What are some of your upcoming projects?

CP: I have a couple concepts bubbling for new anthologies, neither of which has anything to do with Holmes, Challenger, or Doyle, but until I’ve found a home for them, there’s not a lot I can say on the subject. What I can say is that it has been four years since Gaslight Arcanum was released and recently Jeff and I have batted around the possibility of returning to Sherlock Holmes, but until we decide on an angle, or hook for the project, it remains just a possibility for now.

On a non-publishing, but Sherlock Holmes related front, I’ve been invited to speak in Minneapolis next year at The Norwegian Explorers 2016 Tri-Annual Conference: The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes. My topic will be related to the ‘misadventures’ of Sherlock Holmes on film and television, which should be a good bit of fun.

JC: I need to even the editorial score with Charles. Imagine him doing a book with me! Much as I enjoyed Beyond Rue Morgue: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1st Detective, I knew it meant work for me. I’m working with a new co-editor, the very talented Shannon Allen, and Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing on an all-new anthology of Arthurian fantasy. I’m also sharing the pages with the interviewer (Derrick Belanger) in the newly-released MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. As for Charles and I working together again, we’re still talking about projects over a pint or two, but we’re not ready to make any announcements just yet.

IHOSE:  Any last thoughts?

JC: Just a note to say how much I’ve enjoyed working with the contributors to this book. We read so many excellent stories and were unable to include them all. Saying no is the unfortunate part of being an editor. I’d also like to give kudos to Dave Elsey for the amazing cover he provided. Working with such talented people is what makes these works so addictive.

CP: One of the truly wonderful things about putting together our anthologies was the realization that Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations - his words - resonate with so many professional writers and artists working today. When we started putting together lists of writers for our first ‘Gaslight’ anthology we often wondered if Author XYZ had any interest in writing a Sherlock Holmes piece? We learned fairly quickly that just about every writer we approached for a story had at least read some Sherlock Holmes, or was on some level influenced in their work by Sherlock Holmes, or were closet Holmes fans, and many had long wanted to contribute to the wealth of literature that has sprung up around the character. It was an even bigger eye-opener to find a similar level of esteem for Professor Challenger. It’s a testament to the enduring legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tremendous talent and skill that we were able to work with so many exceptional writers and artists in our anthologies.  These books have been a labour of love for all of us, a chance to give something back, or as ACD put it in his dedication for THE LOST WORLD:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who's half a man,
Or the man who's half a boy.

Thank you!

Charles V. Prepolec  is a freelance editor, writer, artist and reviewer with published contributions in a variety of books and magazines. He is co-editor of five Sherlock Holmes anthologies (with J. R. Campbell) - Curious Incidents Vols. 1 & 2; Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2008); Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2009 Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes (2011); as well as co-editor (with Paul Kane) of Beyond Rue Morgue: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1st Detective (2013) for Titan Books. His most recent anthology (with J. R. Campbell) is Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places (2015) EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy. An active Sherlockian with The Singular Society of the Baker Street Dozen for more than 25 years, he is also a member of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London, The Sydney Passengers of Australia, and was designated a Master Bootmaker (MBt) in 2006 by The Bootmakers of Toronto – the Sherlock Holmes society of Canada. He resides in Calgary, AB, Canada with his wife, Kristen, and their cat, Karma.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cprepolec
Twitter: https://twitter.com/sherlockeditor
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Charles-Prepolec/e/B002BO801O/

Jeff R. Campbell is a writer and editor living in his hometown of Calgary. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Challenger Unbound, Rigor Amortis, A Study in Lavender and most recently in The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. In audio form his work has been transmitted to unsuspecting audiences by Jim French’s  Imagination Theater. With his friend and co-editor he has edited the anthologies Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes, Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes and Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes.